Even in the Italian cannibal sub-genre, Cannibal Apocalypse aka Invasion of the Flesh Hunters aka Cannibals in the Streets stands alone thanks to its absurd premise, propelling what could’ve be a much more nuanced knock-off into some pretty strange territory. Directed by Antonio Margheriti, who was essentially the poor man’s Mario Bava, Margheriti followed the trends of Italian cinema at the time, turning in low budget knock-offs that still managed to deliver the goods. This explains why the director was a favorite of Quentin Tarantino, who has gone on record more than once extolling his love for Cannibal Apocalypse. He’s also name checked Margheriti in two of his films, which is why his name probably sounds familiar: first in Inglourious Basterds, and more recently Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood, with Tarantino casting Rick Dalton in a fictional film made by Margheriti, the spaghetti secret agent James Bond rip-off Operazione Dyn-o-mite!
In terms of cannibal films, Apocalypse hit the same year as Cannibal Holocaust and a year before Cannibal Ferox, right when this trend was in full swing. The film also borrows from a different kind of flesh eater, Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, which had come out year before. Of all films mentioned, Dawn probably has the greatest influence over Apocalypse, since we aren’t dealing with jungle-dwelling natives, as is the norm for this genre, but a group of American soldiers who fought in Vietnam, who contract cannibalism and then spread it. The film uses the desire for flesh as a metaphor for the craving of violence these men then bring back and inflict on others. The cannibalism here is spread, like in the Romero mythology, via bite, but with the host remaining alive and fully aware of their actions.
Cannibal Apocalypse begins in the jungles of Vietnam, which look very much like the forests of Georgia, with Green Beret Norman Hopper (John Saxon) raiding a Viet Cong prison camp. While taking out the enemy, he just so happens to come to the rescue of two of his hometown comrades, Tommy (Tony King) and Charlie Bukowski (John Morghen, Cannibal Ferox, City of the Living Dead). He finds the men feasting on an unfortunate Viet Cong who managed to fall into their pit cell, Hopper is bitten when he extends a hand to rescue the men. Nothing is really explained here about the origin of the cannibalism virus, and then the film jumps forward to late ‘70s Atlanta, Georgia. Hopper is now living a quiet life in the suburbs with his two war buddies in a mental institution thanks to what transpired in the war. Apocalypse almost feels like two very different movies, in the first half focusing on Bukowski, who is released for the day and goes on a bloody rampage after a war film activates his cravings, ending in a bloody police standoff.
The second half of the film has Hopper, who has now given into his cravings, rescuing Charlie and Tommy from the asylum as they leave a gore-soaked trail through the Atlanta’s streets and sewers. It’s not clearly explained how this need to feast on the flesh of others suddenly is triggered years later, or how it affects those who have been infected. The film is just as entertaining as it clumsy as it stumbles to its finish line with no real clear goal for Hopper, who is left irredeemable as the film just seems to run out of steam. Is Apocalypse meant to be a statement on war, or man’s constant battle with his most animalistic of urges? I’m not sure even Margheriti knows the answer to that. His next effort would have him tackle another war narrative in The Last Hunter, which is about an American soldier who gets trapped behind enemy lines, with his comrades his only hope for rescue.
The film recently hit Blu-ray this week thanks to Kino Lorber classics,who created a gorgeous 4k master from the UNCUT version of the film that’s quite an upgrade from the 2002 Image Entertainment Euroshock release. I’ve seen this film both on 35mm and VHS, and it’s never looked this clear. The transfer here is bright and has an amazing clarity and contrast, which makes it hilariously apparent they spliced in stock 16mm war footage in the beginning to save a few bucks. The film’s sex/gore content originally landed the film an X rating, which was later trimmed down to an R for the US release. Watching the film now, it’s definitely apparent we got the X rated version, since the gore here is a bit on the gratuitous side even by my standards (not a complaint). One scene in particular has Charlie gleefully spending 4 minutes using a saw on a dead mechanic’s leg, chopping it into bite size bits.
The film comes with all of the extras from that Euroshock release along with a NEW commentary with Tim Lucas, who wrote the comprehensive tome on Mario Bava, Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark. For his book, Lucas interviewed a ton of folks in the Italian film industry, and on the commentary he gives a tremendous amount of insight and information on not only the Italian film industry, but the players that made this oddity happen. It’s a fascinating listen that really helped add some context to what we watch unfold on screen, and is a must listen for fans. The film also comes with the feature length doc Cannibal Apocalypse Redux featuring interviews with stars John Saxon, John Morghen (Giovanni Lombardo Radice), and even director Antonio Margheriti, who give the viewer a further deep dive in what birthed this madness.
Revisiting the film for this review, I have to say, I still have no idea what Cannibal Apocalypse is ultimately trying to do, but it sure is fun as hell to watch this zombie/cannibal hybrid play out. The film looks just about as good as it’s going to get thanks to the new UNCUT transfer that really spotlights not only the over the top gore, but the great cinematography by Fernando Arribas, who would later shoot one of my favorite 3D oddities, Comin’ at Ya! Kino Lorber has delivered a slam dunk with this release, which presents the film in a comprehensive package that gives fans of this flesh-eating oddity everything they could possibly want.